The other day, I was browsing at http://www.edisonnation.com/, a web site that helps inventors develop their new products. They are guided through all the steps of the invention process from inspiration to patentable idea to prototype to commercial product. Some of these products are then licensed to be sold in retail outlets like Bed Bath & Beyond, Spencers, and Hammacher Schlemmer. A successful invention selling well at one of these stores can mean big money for the inventor, and many would-be inventors hope to strike it rich. On a page that helps inventors find engineers and designers to help them prototype their inventions, I saw this notice:
Introducing the most creative mind ever! I have the ideas but just need to produce and market it. I consider myself as a highly creative person. I have so many invention ideas that need to be out in the public soon but just need assistance to get the ball rolling. Assistance needed on what steps I need to take next.
Thank you for your time.
It really grabbed my attention. What captured my interest, besides the poor grammar (which I’ve partially cleaned up) and the incredible ego of the writer, was that this little notice crystallized some popular misconceptions about invention, creativity and innovation.
Not knowing much about innovation or creativity is no sin, but a person like Eric claiming to be an idea-generating machine could benefit from spending a little time in the library reading up on the subject. The web site itself also has lots of resources where you can learn the basics of new product development, the ins and outs of patenting your ideas, and issues of manufacture, distribution and marketing.
People who are successful inventors do have lots of ideas, just like Eric. But they realize that ideas are a dime a dozen, and that in addition to the inspiration, a lot of good, plain hard work is required to bring an idea from start to finish. Thomas Edison famously stated that genius is “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration” (Rawson & Miner, 2008). Eric needs to get going drawing plans of his ideas or making models. Without them, he’s just dreaming of the big bucks payoff without doing the job of crafting his idea into something workable. Edison also quipped that “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work” (Mason, 1990).
Many inventions are prompted by the recognition of an unmet need. Inventors and other creative folks notice when something doesn’t work well, or when a bottleneck exists in a system. You may know a creative tinkerer who is always headed for the garage or the tool box to modify an existing product to make it work better. Or maybe you are the kind of person who can create a thingamajig that will serve a particular purpose to help you do something more easily. That kind of invention can be very personally rewarding though not necessarily capable of bringing in the big bucks that Eric probably wants.
Other inventions are generated by the recognition of a new technological capacity that will allow you to do something that you couldn’t do before. Many of the new electronic messaging systems make use of the technology to give us things that we didn’t know we needed. Before long, we’ve discovered that these very things are now important parts of our lives.
Eric says that he’s creative. Highly creative! What does he mean by this? We don’t have any way to know. He offers no evidence of his claim, and as far as I’m concerned, “the proof is in the pudding.” The way you can tell how creative a person is requires looking at the results of their creativity—their output. Just having a lot of ideas doesn’t make you creative. They have to be new, useful, attractive ideas. You need ideas that have a spark of newness in them, that work or do what they’re supposed to do, and that can attract others to them, to help you implement them, or to attract buyers if your ideas are for products.
You may have a creative idea to improve something in your workplace or to provide a new service to patrons. You may have polished your idea and be sure that it will work. But then comes the difficult business of innovation. Innovation is where the creative idea becomes a business practice. It starts with a plan, a thorough analysis of the steps necessary for implementation, with business and design metrics applied.
It can take months or years of hard work to put your creative idea into action. But that’s what innovation is all about. Not showing off about all the wonderful ideas you can come up with. It is not even enough to show that your idea is a creative one. To be truly innovative is to be able to apply your creative solutions to problems at the organizational level. Innovation is a system-wide application and implementation of a creative idea, which has been strengthened and developed and tested to be sure that it is at its best level possible for this point in time.
While inventors are often independent thinkers who prefer to work by themselves, if you are going to be an innovator, you can’t go it alone. You’ll need an idea so attractive that others will want to partner with you to make this thing happen. This idea will need a commitment of time on your part, and resources on the part of your organization. But it will be possible. It will be possible if it really is such a good idea – such a creative idea. And if you, Eric, are really such a highly creative individual, you’ll need to be willing to pull on your overalls and get the job done.
Susan Besemer, Ph.D. is a research psychologist and the founder of ideafusion. Since the early 1980s she has been studying the characteristics of creative products through Creative Product Analysis, both in the U.S. and in Norway.